I can’t help but love Norma Shearer. She was so beautiful, ballsy and, in her day, the reigning queen of Hollywood. That is, if Garbo hadn’t been. Fascinating how someone who would otherwise be number one in the world, exists opposite another who is their match and then some. Just like John McEnroe had Bjorn Borg and Tom Brady has Eli Manning to contend with – Norma had the almighty Garbo raining on her Hollywood parade.
Not that we should feel too bad for Norma. After all, she was married to Irving Thalberg, the wunderkind at MGM who made silver screen art and tinseltown magic while Louis B. Mayer made money. But even though he was married to Norma and gave her all the choice parts, even Irving knew Garbo transcended her time. As accessible Norma was to the masses, Garbo was inaccessible like a true star in the sky. As likeable and glamorous in an earthly way as Norma was portrayed, Garbo was the goddess who touched down on terra firma long enough to steal our hearts – then quickly ascend back into the heavens. But this wasn’t the biggest reason Garbo has endured and been remembered while Norma Shearer has largely been forgotten. No, the biggest reason is how the two stars fates were constructed on-screen.
Norma always got her man. And, like in hugely successful THE WOMEN, she wasn’t above groveling to get him the lecherous ass back. In stark black & white contrast – Garbo was the vamp who found redemption through love, then died for it. She found truelove just before they shot her, like in MATA HARI, or, before she kicked the bucket in CAMILLE. These roles, inherently dramatic and romantic visions, couple with Garbo’s unbelievably gorgeous face – made her the queen of the silver screen without equal. Norma, beautiful and comedic – could never pull off such high drama even if she wanted to.
But this blog is about Norma Shearer. Taken by herself, she was an often wonderful actress opposite stars like Clark Gable in FREE SOUL. She was exuberant and shimmered an inner-glow that I believe she possessed in real life. Most attractive, however, was how she stuck by her man Irving in real life. Thalberg was a very sick man and died young. Norma truly loved him and protected his image long after he passed. Tragically, in her own life after Hollywood, Norma sought out seclusion (not unlike her arch-screen nemesis Garbo) and appeared frightened by the aging process we are all subjected to. It saddens me that we glorify our leading ladies at the height of their beauty, then toss them aside so easily once they hit 30, or younger. Are they not the same women we fell in love with at first sight in their 20’s?
Norma will always be remembered. Maybe not like Garbo. But even Garbo, while most know the name, has been relegated to a bygone era. Lost in the sea of technology, special effects and irrelevant, male-oriented storylines that disgrace our cinema screens today. I’m hoping for a resurgence of interest in golden age Hollywood stars as a result of this year’s silent screen Oscar-contender “The Artist”. The storyline of which was lifted from the very-real life love story between Garbo and John Gilbert. But that’s for another blog. Today I want to celebrate Norma. May she be remembered as a classy dame who knew how to have fun and hold her man.